Black Death (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★
Osmund (Eddie Redmayne) was a young Christian monk who decided to go with Ulrich (Sean Bean), the envoy to the bishop, and his men (Emun Elliott, Johnny Harris, Andy Nyman, Tygo Gernandt, John Lynch) to guide them in reaching a village surrounded by a marsh beyond the Dentwich Forest. It was a place of special interest because word went around that a necromancer had taken control of the area. The heretic was to be apprehended and sent to the bishop for trial and execution. Based on the screenplay by Dario Poloni, “Black Death” was a gripping gothic horror with a supernatural premise on top of the Bubonic Plague backdrop. Since no one understood the science of vectors and disease, people surmised that the pestilence was an act of God, a way for Him to purge away the sins of His people. As the film got deeper into the mystery involving a person being capable of raising the dead, it was interesting to observe the way the men’s faith was challenged. Of particular interest was Osmund, torn between his devotion to his religion and being with a woman (Kimberley Nixon) he loved. Being a monk, he had to choose one or the other. The changes that occurred within each character, not all of them given enough time to get to know by the audience, had variation and maintained a certain level of subtlety. What was straightforward, however, was the physical journey that the men took toward the village. When the group stopped, they faced some sort of death. The standout was a battle among thieves in the forest. The violence was gruesome–throats were sliced, swords went through torsos, arms were torn off completely–but somehow it never felt gratuitous. I got the impression that we actually needed to see how fierce the men were so that later on, when they eventually had to face something so monstrous and they cowered like children, we had an understanding of their fears. The village in question was very curious. Since it was unexpectedly peaceful, the director, Christopher Smith, milked certain looks given by its residents. Hob (Tim McInnerny) was obviously the alpha male, his voice commanding and stature very proud. Langiva (Carice van Houten) was also worthy of suspicion. Her blonde hair which complemented her very pale complexion probably concealed a very dark evil. The abandoned church, given Christianity’s influence back in the day, was a good signal that something wasn’t quite right. There was one detail that didn’t make sense to me. After finding out about the unused place of worship, why did the men continue to trust the villagers by eating their food and drinking their wine? It felt like a plot convenience, a weak set-up so that the men from the outside would lose their advantage. It was a surprise to me because prior to that point, the material did a great job in circumventing eye-rolling clichés. Nevertheless, “Black Death” was very atmospheric, especially the sequences when the men had to wade through the marsh, and offered engaging performances, particularly by Redmayne. The movie worked because it sacrificed cheap scares for more thoughtful denouements.
Dark Water (2005)
★★★ / ★★★★
After a divorce, Dahlia (Jennifer Connelly) moved in with Ceci (Ariel Gade), her daughter, into an apartment. The two hoped to start a new life but it proved to be a challenge. Ceci began to make an imaginary friend named Natasha, the same name of a little girl who disappeared from the apartment directly above theirs. On the other hand, Dahlia not only had to deal with abandonment issues from her own mother years prior, but she also had to worry about the increasingly large leak in their bedroom ceiling. The apartment attendant (Pete Postlethwaite) and the realtor (John C. Reilly) wouldn’t take the time to genuinely help her. Over time, Dahlia became in danger of reaching an emotional and psychological breaking point. Based on a novel by Kôji Suzuki and directed by Walter Salles, “Dark Water” was at its best when it explored the bond between a mother and her only daughter. I enjoyed the first few scenes when the mother and daughter evaluated the dilapidated apartment. Ceci insisted that she thought the place was creepy and didn’t want to live there, but it was all the mother could afford. Instead of immediately going for the cheap thrills, the material focused on the family’s sad circumstance. The first sign that there was something wrong was reflected in Ceci’s sudden change of mind after she stared at the dark spot on the ceiling. The supernatural horror was effective because it challenged the mother-daughter bond, the only strand that seemed to keep Dahlia’s mentality in a stable point. What didn’t work for me were the tired dream sequences. There were simply too many of them. In addition, it was easy to determine that we were watching a dream because the scenes had a certain glow. That lack of surprise ultimately worked against the film. The dreams were just an excuse to go overboard with special and visual effects involving water leaking out of the walls. There was nothing scary about it. While water was an important component in solving the mystery that surrounded the missing family upstairs, incorporating water with creepy details, like hair coming out of the bathroom faucet, was more engaging than a dream sequence with gallons of water that threatened to drown the character. However, I admired that the picture eventually focused on the ugliness of Dahlia and Kyle’s (Dougray Scott) divorce. More importantly, I was glad that, despite the former couple’s arguments, there was enough hint that they still cared for each other. It was another layer of reality which made the horrific elements stand out. I feel the need to give credit for Connelly’s strong performance. She made me believe that every stress her character went through was a threat to her or her daughter’s physical well-being. I knew she loved her daughter but I feared the moment when she would finally lose her grip on reality. “Dark Water” was a smart and confident horror film because it stayed away from simplifying its mature template. If only others of its type would follow.
Craft, The (1996)
★★ / ★★★★
Sarah (Robin Tunney) and her family recently moved to Los Angeles from San Francisco. Sarah didn’t have many friends before and the prospect of her making many friends in her new school was low. It seemed as though everyone she encountered was either downright mean, mostly the catty girls (Christine Taylor) that scoured the hallways for their latest prey, or simply wanted to get her in bed, naturally, the hyper-masculine jocks (Skeet Ulrich). Sarah met Nancy (Fairuza Balk), Bonnie (Neve Campbell), and Rochelle (Rachel True), goths who practiced witchcraft. Sarah had dabbled in witchery, too. She didn’t really get along with them at first but she hung out with them anyway because being a pariah as a group was better than being alone. Directed by Andrew Fleming, “The Craft” was an exercise in the exaggeration of high school teen angst. Half of it was fun, but the other half was self-indulgent. It was enjoyable to watch because we got a chance to see mean kids in high school get the punishment they deserved. My favorite was the blonde girl whose hair began to fall off after she called Rochelle a “Negroid” and that she hated Rochelle’s kind and their “nappy hair.” As ugly as it was to hear such dialogue, I thought it had a certain honesty. In high school, I’ve heard all sorts of mean comments that would rarely, if ever, make it on television or movies. The film’s strongest scenes took place at school despite its improbable hyperboles such as Sarah not meeting anyone who seemed genuinely nice. As we got deeper into the story, I noticed the picture slowly beginning to rely on special and visual effects to generate suspense. I don’t think it needed to. It would have been more fascinating if we saw no thunderstorms striking one of the witches or if there were no butterflies flying around them to symbolize that the god they worshipped was listening to them. Teen witches casting a spell in one scene and strange events happening the next day at school would have been enough. By not giving us much, we were left to wonder if the spells they foolishly casted were having an effect or it was simply a matter of coincidences. I thought there were also some missteps in terms of character development or editing. In one of the scenes, Rochelle started to feel bad about the spell she casted on the racist blonde. It was apparent that she wanted out of the witches’ circle (a literal self-reflection because she stood next to a mirror) but she was afraid of Nancy’s wrath. Almost immediately after the audiences were made aware of her guilt, Rochelle continued to be friends with Nancy and her character’s evolution was completely abandoned. That strand could have been a turning point. Instead of the protagonist, it would have been refreshing to see a supporting character come out of nowhere and defy certain archetypes. In the end, “The Craft” was just another teen flick from the 90s but with black nail polish witchcraft.
Shallow Ground (2004)
★ / ★★★★
When a boy, naked and covered in blood, appeared at the police station with a knife, the three officers (Timothy V. Murphy, Stan Kirsch, Lindsey Stoddart) in charge of the small town suspected he had committed murder. But when a medic (Natalie Avital) looked at the blood sample, she discovered that the blood had come from three or four different people and the cells had been dead for about a year. “Shallow Ground,” written and directed by Sheldon Wilson, was a horror movie that made no sense. It didn’t know whether to be a slasher film or a supernatural thriller; it ended up a hybrid of both but the story was too weak to sustain our attention. There were hints that the events that were happening in the small town were happening in the city as well. Was there some kind of virus that plagued certain areas? Maybe the strange events were triggered by something alien like in George A. Romero’s zombie flicks. Instead of taking advantage of our curiosity and exploring that angle, there was a barrage of painfully unnecessary flashbacks involving a girl that one of the cops failed to rescue from a hooded, knife-wielding killer. One or two flashbacks would have sufficed but there were about ten. None of them served to push the story forward. The writer-director just wanted to hammer the fact that the cop was plagued by guilt and that was the reason we should root for him to survive. Furthermore, the picture relied too often on false alarms aided by its obnoxious music. Due to its formulaic use of scary music, we grew accustomed to its techniques. We knew exactly when something would pop out of the dark corner so there was no tension in the kills. The eerie whispers, rustling leaves, doors opening and shutting were simply not scary. The movie also tried to scare us with blood. It was almost amusing how much blood was used to the point where I managed to put them in groups. One type of blood was the kind that moved as if it had a mind of its own. It reminded me of the very inspired Black Oil saga from Chris Carter’s “The X-Files.” When touched, it gave someone a jolt and the person was able to see another’s darkest secrets. It helped to drive people to kill “the sinner.” The second type of blood was, like the film’s pacing, stagnant. It did no harm to the person who happened to touch it. I called it “regular blood.” Both types looked incredibly fake and neither generated scares. Weren’t the filmmakers aware of the fact that blood by itself didn’t necessarily equal to a good horror movie? Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws” was scary because the shark ate people and then we could see blood in the water. Blood was a byproduct of something horrific, not the element that caused the terror. “Shallow Ground” failed because it tried to be too many things at once. Jack of all trades, master of none.
Rest Stop: Don’t Look Back (2008)
★ / ★★★★
Tom (Richard Tillman), on leave for ten days from the military, decided to look for his brother in California after Jesse (Joey Mendicino) and Nicole (Julie Mond) had been missing for a year. Marilyn (Jessie Ward) and Jared (Graham Norris), Tom’s girlfriend and high school friend, decided to lend a hand. While loading their cars with gas, Jared noticed something that used to belong to Nicole. The gas station attendant (Steve Railsback) confirmed seeing the two lovers and suggested that the three stopped looking. Written by John Shiban and directed by Shawn Papazian, “Rest Stop: Don’t Look Back” had a promising first thirty minutes. The first murder attempt which involved Jared being tragically stuck in a porta-potty was darkly comedic, horrific, and downright disgusting. I was also excited of the fact that we actually saw more of the killer and how he abducted a person while the partner used the restroom. I even saw a pinch of ambition as Nicole discovered that the restroom seemed to defy time and space. I was very curious in how it would resolve itself. However, the film began to lose its promise when it relied on the ghosts to generate tension. The question stopped being about which of the characters would die next and how they would meet their demise. I became more concerned of whether the character on screen was indeed alive or simply a spirit. As a result, the tension of the serial killer and the manner in which he hunted his victims was no longer there. Moreover, Mond, who did not play Nicole in the first film, was especially weak. All of her scenes needed to be reshot. When she spoke, I could sense her about to burst into laughter. I was surprised her scenes made the final cut. I wondered why she was even cast because she looked nothing like her predecessor. The filmmakers should have been more critical because Nicole was an important character in the story arc given that she provided details that would lead to the picture’s climax. What I was most interested in was Tom’s desperation and rage. His sense of loss was explored only sporadically and in the most obvious ways. I didn’t get the sense that the two were really brothers. The emotions between them were mentioned using words but not actually shown in a meaningful or moving way. “Rest Stop: Don’t Look Back” felt cheap not because of its images or even the way it was shot but because it strayed too far from its original concept. Instead of resolving strands like the creepy family in the Winnebago and their twisted relationship with the killer, the film pulled a maddening last-minute twist. To me, it was evidence that the writer felt like he could have done more with the script. If he was happy with what he had, he wouldn’t have felt the need to add such an unnecessary thing.
Rest Stop (2006)
★ / ★★★★
Nicole (Jaimie Alexander) and Jesse (Joey Mendicino) decided to run away together. Jesse, an aspiring actor, invited his girlfriend to live with him in Los Angeles after he snagged a role. Nicole, who lived in Texas her entire life and depended on her parents for everything, was swayed by the romantic notion and accepted. When they finally reached California, Nicole needed to use the restroom so the couple visited an isolated rest stop. When Nicole exited the restroom, she noticed her boyfriend and their car was no longer there. Written and directed by John Shiban, “Rest Stop” was devoid of inspiration. It shamelessly adopted elements from every horror picture in which a female was stalked by a madman. However, that was not my main problem with it. I was more bothered by the fact that the material embodied an inconsistent and extremely frustrating rising action. When Nicole was terrorized, just when I thought it was over for our protagonist, the man in the baseball hat would suddenly stop. I understood that he relished her terror and it was all a game for him. But there’s a way to helm a project without making the breaks between the high-pitched screams feel stale. I would have been more invested in the story if Nicole had been smarter. Just because she was sheltered, she didn’t have to be stupid. The limitation of the writing was evident. For instance, the rest stop was surrounded by trees. I didn’t understand why Nicole, after breaking into a room with a radio, decided to drink the alcohol she found in a drawer. Maybe she thought she was safe after one person received her transmission, but a smart heroine, the kind we could root for despite her blunders, would have attempted to talk to at least three different people to ensure that the other person on the other line was not the killer. Instead, what she decided to do was disheartening: she chugged the alcohol and simply waited for help–outside where she was exposed, where she knew the killer could be watching. Furthermore, as she tried to leave the area by hiding behind the trees, every time she saw the yellow truck approaching, she was foolish enough to jump onto the main road and run from there. No wonder she couldn’t escape. It’s like playing hide and seek and you decide to change hiding places in front of the person who was looking around. But the most critical misstep involved the invocation of the supernatural. Although there are exceptions, the supernatural was unnecessary in this slasher flick because it became less believable. The horror relied on the concept of us inevitably stopping at a rest area when we go on long drives. A ghost was too much of a leap, almost a distraction, from what could been a realistic, genuinely terrifying predicament.
★ / ★★★★
Helen Lyle (Virginia Madsen) and Anne-Marie McCoy (Vanessa Williams) were graduate students who became increasingly involved in a series of murders in the projects. Word went around that if one said “Candyman” five times while alone in the bathroom, Candyman (Tony Todd) would appear and kill the daring summoner in the most gruesome way possible. Was it simply an urban legend designed to scare those who lived in the violent neighborhood or was there something darker that needed to be explored and revealed? Based on the short story “The Forbidden” by Clive Barker, “Candyman” failed to generate genuine scares because it neglected to define what was fantasy and what was reality, and it was plagued by characters who were supposedly smart but almost always chose the stupid decision when the occasion called for it. Take Helen for example. Despite the murders, she decided to drag her friend to the scene of the crime without taking any sort of precaution. She had no knowledge about the people who lived in the projects or how to effectively communicate with those connected to the infamous murders. She only had one thing in mind: She had to take pictures in order to avoid a “boring thesis.” Nevermind the men who could easily get their way with them. Nevermind offending those who just wanted to move on from the grizzly incidents. When Helen seemed to descent into madness, there were a plethora of unintentionally funny moments. As she awoke covered in blood with no memory of how she got there, she decided to pick up a meat cleaver next to a beheaded dog. Did it not occur to her that what she just touched could potentially be the murder weapon and she was getting her fingerprints all over it? And were we expected to believe that a baby that Candyman abducted could live for over a month without food or water? After all, the film eventually implied that Candyman was only real in Helen’s mind. There were many glaring inconsistencies so I was constantly taken out of the experience. The writing was weak and the direction was no better. There were more than a handful of unnecessary shots of bees which were designed to give us the creeps, Candyman’s face appeared on the screen to make us jump out of our seats, and nonsensical decisions placed too conveniently to trigger one set of events to another. Directed by Bernard Rose, “Candyman” lacked genuine tension and suspenseful sequences that basic horror films should have. It would have been an entirely different experience if the writing was more focused and, more importantly, if the graduate students thought and acted like excellent detectives instead of blond sorority girls typically slayed early on in standard slasher flicks.
★★ / ★★★★
“Requiem” was based on the real-life story more commercially covered in “The Exorcism of Emily Rose.” Michaela (Sandra Hüller) had been plagued by chronic seizures ever since childhood but the picture instantly suggested there was something far worse happening to her. So when she was finally accepted to attend the university, her parents (Imogen Kogge, Burghart Klaußner), especially her mother, did not want her to leave home. In college, at first things were fine despite her occasional–and natural–loneliness quickly remedied by a nice boy (Nicholas Reinke) and a classmate from high school (Anna Blomeier). But as the year pressed on, she slowly lost control of her body to the point where she was unable to reach religious symbols or even pray. After I saw this movie, I did not like it because I expected a more obvious approach in telling a story about a possessed girl that lead up to an exorcism. In other words, I expected a horror film. However, when I separate my expectations from what the film had to offer, the more I thought about it, the more I enjoyed it because it tried to stray from the obvious. I loved the fact that her condition was not an obvious demonic possession. I can even argue that she wasn’t possessed at all. From her symptoms, I can argue that she had schizophrenia because of the paranoia and imaginary visions and sounds. Then I turned to her very sheltered environment–how she was raised and the sexual repression she endured over the years. But then the movie commented on how we could easily turn to science for an explanation of things that we couldn’t fully understand. It added one layer of complexity after another while remaining true to its naturalistic also documentary-like style. Her progression from a normal girl to someone who reached a mental break was subtle and frightening in its own way. However, I thought the film needed more work on delivering more consistent payoffs. The first half relied heavily on setting up the background with small rewards dispersed few and far between. It would have been more terrifying if the camera allowed us to see through Michaela’s eyes and seeing the things she saw or hearing the voices she heard. By having more scenes that actively blurred the line between the real and the supernatural, the project would have been more frightening. Written by Barnd Lange and directed by Hans-Christian Schmid, “Requiem” was an interesting psychological drama with a lot of promise. It did not completely work for me because the first half was somewhat difficult to sit through but once it started picking up in the second half, my eyes were transfixed on the screen.
Village, The (2004)
★★ / ★★★★
The first time I saw M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Village” back in 2005, I didn’t like it because I thought it was too strange for its own good and the pacing was too slow. I’m happy to have given it more than one chance because I thought it got better upon multiple viewings. The story involved a small village terrorized by creatures in the woods. For some odd reason, skinned animals started appearing in greater numbers but the leaders of the village (William Hurt, Sigourney Weaver, Brendan Gleeson) had no idea what they have done to anger the creatures. As the younger residents (Bryce Dallas Howard, Joaquin Phoenix, Adrien Brody, Judy Greer, Michael Pitt) lived a life of relative bliss thanks to the secrets they have not yet discovered, chaos started destroy the village from within until a blind girl, played by Howard, went on an important quest through the feared woods. I thought the second half of the movie was stronger than the first half. While the first half had the bulk of the story, I constantly waited for small rewards that would keep me glued to the screen until its climax. Unfortunately, those small rewards did not deliver so I felt like the story could have gone in any direction. I questioned whether it wanted to say something about the specific group of people in relation to the environment they built for themselves or if it wanted to be a psychological-supernatural thriller. The lack of focus lost me. Fortunately, the second half was when everything started to come together. I’ll try not to give anything away but I enjoyed the way Shyamalan incorporated the reality and the supernatural. Specifically, when Howard went into the woods and encountered something she did not at all expect. There were twists on top of another and it made me think without feeling any sort of frustration which I think is difficult to accomplish. The scenes in the woods were beautifully shot but at the same time the beauty was sometimes masked in an ominous feeling of dread and anticipation. I can understand why a lot of people would consider “The Village” one of Shyamalan’s worst projects especially if they’ve only seen the movie once. The pacing was indeed quite slow and there were a plethora of questions with open-ended answers concerning the characters’ histories and the multilayer mystery surrounding the village. However, the second half piqued my interest (even though I’ve seen it before) and I thought it was very well done without overdoing the twists. At its best, “The Village” is imaginative and unafraid to take risks; at its worst, “The Village” is a bit insular and may drown in its own vanity.
Interview with the Vampire (1994)
★★★★ / ★★★★
After being caught up with the “True Blood” craze, I decided to visit some of my favorite vampire movies. “Interview with the Vampire,” directed by Neil Jordan, was one of those movies I saw in early high school that I loved but forgot the details as years went on. I’m surprised this one strongly held up against other horror pictures, especially vampire movies. It’s something I didn’t quite expect because the movies I used to think were scary when I was younger turned out to be silly and vapid in storytelling. Tom Cruise stars as Lestat, a vampire who was as equally hungry for blood as he was with power. He one day decided to make Louis (Brad Pitt) into a vampire because, at least according to him, he wanted to give Louis a choice to relieve his pain of losing his wife and child. Despite turning into the undead, Louis still managed to hang onto his humanity by refusing to feed on humans. This bothered Lestat and thought that Louis’ loneliness would be eliminated by giving Louis a companion–in a form of a vampire child played by Kirsten Dunst. But this all happened in the past as the details which covered centuries were revealed by Louis to an enthusiastic reporter (Christian Slater). Although I did read the novels by Anne Rice, I only could remember three things: Louis, Lestat and the passion (both good and bad) between the two. What made me really engaged about this film was not because it was scary in content. I was actually more into Louis’ humanity, his efforts to abstain from human blood, and his eventual search for those who were like him. That romanticism was reflected into the elegant designs of each room in the 18th century to the dark corners of the catacombs. Another thing that was interesting was Kirsten Dunst. As an adult actress, she bores me to death because every emotion she wants to portray on screen feels the same. But in this film, she had range: she was quite magical, menacing, fascinating all rolled into one. For me, “Interview with the Vampire” is a great vampire film because it makes the argument that vampires have the capacity to choose to be good instead of just being one-dimensional fiends who crave blood and live for centuries. Although necessary to paint the nature of vampire, the gore, the violence, and the evil were secondary. It was consistent, thrilling, and very interesting.